“Anyone who fasts and engages in self-evaluation in Ramadan will find heaven.”
– Hadith of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
“It was the month of Ramadan in which the Quran was first bestowed from on high as a guidance unto man and a self-evident proof of that guidance, and as the standard by which to discern the true from the false. Hence, whoever of you lives to see this month shall fast through it, but he that is ill or on a journey shall fast instead for the same number of days. God wills that you shall have ease and does not will you to suffer hardship.” – Quran 2:165-67.
In 610 CE, Prophet Muhammad had secluded himself in a cave at the top of Mount Hira (aka Mount Noor) near Mecca, as he did every year, when Archangel Gabriel appeared to him and revealed the first verse of the Quran, ordering him to read (iqra, in Arabic):
“Read (or recite) in the name of your Lord who created. Created man from a germ-cell. Read, for thy sustainer is the most Bountiful One, who taught by the pen. He taught man what he knew not” (Quran 96:1-6). Muhammad did not know how to read, but Gabriel insisted on his command.
The fact that the history of Islam began with insistence upon knowledge — of the self and the world — is extremely significant.
The fact that the history of Islam began with insistence upon knowledge — of the self and the world — is extremely significant. Allah created human beings with an intellectual and spiritual capacity that they are required to use and develop. The intellect is a blessing and a form of mercy bestowed upon humanity by God. In order for the Quran, and the entire religion, to be a true source of guidance in life, mankind must be aware that deep insights and spiritual transformation are not attained through superficial efforts.
[A Brief History of the Rise of Islam]
In the Quran, God constantly urges us to contemplate and think deeply, read, write, and generally exercise our intellectual and spiritual faculties. In fact, after the word Allah, the second most mentioned word in the Quran “deals with a cluster concerned with knowing, reasoning, intellect, pondering, reflecting, meditating upon, and thinking.”[i] It is thus evident that God has placed an enormous importance on our ability and duty to use our minds, emotions, and spirit together, a unique capacity which distinguishes us from the rest of creation.
Ramadan is a time for fasting, of course, but also, and equally important, a time for deep reflection and contemplation, in addition to rituals and gatherings. Yet, Ramadan, besides being a deeply religious month, where people pray more than usual and attend religious study circles, is usually a festive time too, one full of happy reunions with loved ones. To break the fast, which lasts from dawn until dusk, Muslims gather and eat iftar together as a community, whether it be with family, friends, or with fellow believers in an Islamic center or mosque.
Ramadan is a time for fasting, but also, and equally important, a time for deep reflection and contemplation.
It is also a time for congregational nightly prayers and other devotional practices performed as a community. This year, however, with the unfortunate outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, mosques are closed, and gatherings banned. Hence, these important communal activities will be absent (and sorely missed) for the first time in history.
Nonetheless, Muslims can still highly benefit from this sacred month and take it as an opportunity to go inward, focusing on spirituality even more than other years, when the get-togethers can take much, if not most, of our time. Because of the pandemic, we are all forced to be somewhat secluded and hence, it becomes even more imperative to use this blessed time wisely and focus on our spiritual development through prayer, self-evaluation, reflection, meditation, and learning of the inner-self as much as the outer material reality around us.
It is also important to feel and be grateful, focus our attention on all the blessings we have been given, and thank God for them, as gratitude is an essential component of the Islamic faith and a source of barakah (blessings) and abundance:
“If you give thanks, I will give you more” (Quran 14:7).
During this month, making an intention and taking the time to reflect on every aspect of one’s life in order to see how it can be improved and re-centered on principles of wisdom is crucial. While fasting is observed by most Muslims, self-evaluation and introspection form an important practice of Prophet Muhammad and a spiritual element of Ramadan, which is often forgotten.
Taking time to reflect on every aspect of one’s life to see how it can be improved and re-centered is crucial.
However, if we become conscious of the value and importance of this practice and engage in it, we will come out of this month with renewed strength and energy to grow in every area of our lives: spiritual development, higher consciousness, improved personal relationships, better health, stronger finances, and more satisfactory professional lives.
Prophet Muhammad considered self-reflection so crucial that he said that one hour of contemplation is better than 70 years of worship (Hadith of Prophet Muhammad). In fact, contemplation, or meditation, is an act of worship because it leads us to improve our character and perform good deeds. Contemplation benefits us and prevents us from acting with haste, which tends to have negative consequences in our lives: “Do know that contemplation and patience are from Allah, while hastiness and impetuosity are from Satan” (Hadith of Prophet Muhammad).
[The Three Spiritual Principles that Give Us Strength in Times of Crisis]
[Egypt’s Unique and Age-Old Ramadan Traditions]
Fasting during Ramadan, i.e. abstaining from food, drink, smoking, and sexual relations from sunrise to sunset, perfectly complements self-reflection as it helps us to focus inwardly and does wonders for our physical wellbeing. Western science is barely catching up with the knowledge and wisdom of the Islamic tradition, which has mandated fasting for over 1,400 years. Western medicine now recognizes that fasting provides numerous benefits, including increased longevity, cell regeneration and repair, increased neuron production, more balanced insulin levels, and improved brain plasticity, among other things.
Fasting is extremely beneficial to our spirit and character.
Fasting is extremely beneficial to our spirit and character. It makes us stronger and less reactive, improving our self-control and helping us feel empathy towards those who are forced to go without food because of poverty. The overarching spiritual purpose of fasting is to prevent the body from taking control over the soul. By controlling our bodily desires, we are able to focus on our spiritual side and increase our character strength and moral values.
Fasting teaches us to be patient and less-reactive, which is extremely important in Islam for “Allah loves the patient” (Quran 3:146). Patience is a supreme virtue in Islam: “. . . And whoever remains patient, Allah will make him patient. Nobody can be given a blessing better and greater than patience” (Hadith of Prophet Muhammad). And nothing can teach us patience like fasting does. Fasting also teaches us perseverance, gratitude, and contentment. Finally, fasting makes us trustworthy, because fasting is between Allah and the believer. Only God will know if one is observing the fast or not.
[i] Safi, Omar, Memories of Muhammad. New York: Harper One, 2009. 77